UPDATE 2-Italy's solar growth seen slowing sharply in 2012

Tue May 8, 2012 12:01pm EDT

* Italy was the fastest-growing solar market in 2011

* Sharp fall bad news for major solar module makers

* Solar companies looking beyond Italy

By Svetlana Kovalyova

VERONA, Italy, May 8 (Reuters) - Growth of solar power capacity in Italy, the world's second-biggest market, is expected to slow to 1,500-2,500 megawatts in 2012 after a 9,300 MW leap in 2011, due to a planned cut in incentives, a senior industry official said.

"It could be between 1,500 and 2,500 megawatts," Gerardo Montanino, director of operating division at GSE, Italy's green energy incentives management agency, said on the sidelines of a photovoltaic conference in northern Italy on Tuesday.

"It is very difficult to make more precise forecasts when the rules for the sector are changing," Montanino said.

The Italian government has announced a plan to scale back production incentives to the photovoltaic and other renewable energy this year to ease the burden on consumers, who pay for the industry support with their power bills.

The inflow of requests for incentives, managed by GSE, has slowed considerably so far this year, and various requests have been filed and then later cancelled in a sign of uncertainty in the sector, Montanino said.

The European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) expects Italy to add 3,000 to 6,000 MW this year of new photovoltaic capacity, which turns sunlight into power.

Last year's jump in new installations, spurred by a special decree, made Italy the fastest-growing photovoltaic market for the year. Italy's total installed PV capacity stood at about 12,700 MW at the end of 2011.

A sharp fall in Italy's solar growth is bad news for major solar equipment makers such as Chinese group Suntech Power Holdings, Trina Solar, Yingli Green Energy Holding and U.S. firms First Solar and SunPower Corp.

Andrew Beebe, Suntech Power's chief commercial officer, said it was too early to talk about the impact of planned incentive cuts in Italy on the company's business before the final version is published but said Suntech remained committed to Italy and Germany, which has also cut solar industry support.

"I think both countries will stay firmly committed to solar and we will stay committed to the countries," Beebe told Reuters at the same conference.

LOOKING BEYOND ITALY

Facing a slow down in solar installation demand in Italy, some other companies have started looking to new markets, especially in Asia, which is expected by EPIA to overtake Europe as the growth leader in the next five years.

"We, at REC, have prepared ourselves for this shift from the European markets to Asia," John Andersen, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Norway's Renewable Energy Corp. (REC), told Reuters.

"That means, in our plans we focus more and more on the United States and Asia," Andersen told Reuters. Italy has been be a major market for solar equipment maker REC.

A growing number of Italian renewable energy companies, ranging from the large Enel Green Power to the much smaller TerniEnergia, are already developing solar power projects abroad, attracted by more stable regulatory regimes than at home.

A number of Italian solar companies presented their overseas projects at the conference, in countries ranging from Greece to Chile and from Morocco to South Africa.

Italian makers of solar power equipment, like their western peers, have been hit hard in the past couple of years by the growing competition from lower cost Asian rivals and may turn to the European Commission for help, the head of Italian PV industry association Comitato IFI said.

"We are considering whether to ask the European Commission to launch an anti-dumping action," Comitato IFI Chairman Alessandro Cremonesi told Reuters.

"But it is a very long process ... it would take at least two years, and the industry cannot wait 24 months," Cremonesi said.

The United States imposed import duties on solar panel imports from China in March and anti-dumping duties are expected after initial tariffs came lower than expected.

U.S. moves could inspire European manufacturers but duties to fend off competition from cheaper Chinese solar panels risk feeding the European sector's addiction to artificial subsidies, industry experts say.